When Kexu Lan got the news around 3 a.m. Saturday, she wasn’t sure she could believe it. Over and over she asked, “Is it for sure?”

Lan’s son, a scholar, had been imprisoned in Iran for more than three years. After hearing indications he might soon be freed, she stayed awake Friday night, anxious and unable to sleep.

But the news was indeed a sure thing. On Saturday morning, she spoke to her son. He told her he was OK.

“We just talked normally, like we were never separated,” Lan said in an interview Saturday evening. “Peaceful.”

The call opens a new chapter for Lan, who lives in Seattle and has for years struggled to free her son, Xiyue Wang.

Wang, a 38-year-old Princeton graduate student and University of Washington alumnus, was in Iran in 2016 doing research for his Ph.D., when he was accused of being “sent” to “infiltrate” Iran, according to Princeton. The university calls the claims “completely false.”


Held for alleged espionage, he was detained at the notorious Evin Prison, including 18 days in solitary confinement. A United Nations working group found “no legal basis for the arrest and detention.”

Officials said Saturday Wang was released as part of a prisoner exchange in which the United States released an Iranian scientist. The Swiss government helped broker the return. In a photo provided by the U.S. State Department, Wang was seen in Zurich, Switzerland, on Saturday, being greeted by U.S. officials and holding a folded American flag.

Wang told his mother he is now in Germany, she said, where he will undergo medical evaluation. She doesn’t know exactly when she’ll see him. She wants to give him space to reconnect with his wife and 6-year-old son, she said.

In the years Wang was imprisoned, officials on the campuses of Princeton and UW rallied behind calls for his release.

Washington’s Democratic Congress members and the Seattle City Council urged the Trump administration to prioritize Wang’s release.

Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, appealed to President Donald Trump to help free her husband, saying Wang and their family had “become innocent victims in an ever-intensifying quarrel between world powers.”


Alejandra Gonza, then-director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the UW School of Law, began representing Lan as she sought help for her son.

“I can’t imagine this happening without the amazing advocacy this family has made,” said Gonza, who now runs the nonprofit Global Rights Advocacy.

Qu said in a statement Saturday, “our family is complete once again.” She thanked “everyone who helped make this happen.”

Lan described her son as a genius who loves classical music and “always wants to learn more.” Wang enjoyed his time in Seattle and taught Chinese while he studied at UW, she said.

While her son was in prison, Lan said she mostly avoided the public eye out of fear that media attention could worsen his circumstances. Without family in Seattle, she felt isolated. “Nobody had a situation like me,” she said.

“I have been through a lot of darkness. Hopeless,” she said. “I wanted my son back.”

Public support helped her stay energized and now she hopes to send a message to others.

“We care about other people still in Iran prison,” she said. “We’re concerned about their family. We want to pass love to them, let them know I’m here. I’m willing to support them.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.